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Governor Martin O’Malley Announces 2011 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey Results

Population at 2nd highest level since 1997; Management actions continue to benefit Maryland

RIVA, MD (April 19, 2011)  –Governor Martin O’Malley today announced that the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population is at its second  highest level since 1997 and well above the target for the third year in a row, setting the stage for a Bay-wide recovery. The results of the 2011 Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey indicate that management measures put into place in 2008 are continuing to pay dividends for the crab population, the industry, recreational crabbers and those who just plain enjoy the Bay’s favorite crustacean.  Joined by stakeholders, elected officials and staff, Governor O’Malley made the announcement from the deck of Mike’s Crab House near Annapolis, overlooking the South River.

“Today we continue to realize the benefits of the very tough decisions we made three years ago – decisions that are bringing us closer to our ultimate goal: a self-sustaining fishery that will support our industry and recreational fisheries over the long term,” said Governor O’Malley. “At 460 million crabs, our population is at its second highest level since 1997, and nearly double the record low of 249 million in 2007. And for watermen across the Bay, the unusually high abundance we saw last year translated into a harvest of more than 89 million pounds — the highest since 1993.”

The survey also reports that 254 million adult crabs survived an unusually cold winter in the Chesapeake, above the current population target for the third year in a row.  This marks the first time since the early 90s that the Bay has seen three consecutive years where the adult population was above the target (200 million crabs) and the combined commercial and recreational harvest was below the target of 46 percent.

“This annual survey, not only gives us the best accounting of our populations, it is also an excellent predictor of the upcoming harvest,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary John Griffin.  “While we are heartened by these results, we remain committed to working with our partners and stakeholders to keep the harvest in balance with the population over the long term.”

Estimates of abundance are developed separately for young of the year crabs, mature female crabs, and adult male crabs. Together, these groups of crabs will support the 2011 fishery and produce the next generation of crabs.

“The Bay’s blue crab population can vary dramatically from year to year, and 2011 has presented some challenges,” said DNR Fisheries Service Director Tom O’Connell. “Crabs are vulnerable to extreme cold, and this past winter’s deep freeze is to blame for the fact that as much as 31 percent of Maryland’s adult crabs were lost to winter kill, as opposed to about 11 percent in 2010. Crab reproduction was also lower in 2011—again, not unexpected given its natural variability, which is heavily influenced by environmental conditions.”

“Quite clearly, this year presented a perfect storm,” explained Dr. Tom Miller, professor of fisheries at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.  “It was warmer than normal going into the winter, got cold rapidly in early December and then stayed very cold and below average from mid-December to the beginning of February.  Any one of these would have caused increased mortality, but in combination, they were exactly what we didn’t need.”

Maryland’s management system of daily catch limits and closed periods is designed to adapt and ensure that annual crab harvest stays balanced with annual shifts in abundance. DNR will begin working immediately with the industry, the public and our advisory commissions to determine if minor adjustments to Maryland’s regulations will be made this year.

“Our stakeholders and citizens can rest assured that never again will we allow the removal of 60 to 75 percent of our population, which ultimately resulted in the fishery’s decline,” said Governor O’Malley.

Preliminary harvest numbers in the 88-94 million-pound range confirm that a robust industry can coexist with regulations designed to rebuild a self-sustaining, healthy blue crab population.  In addition, recreational crabbing license sales increased by 8 percent in 2010, evidence that word about improved catch rates spread quickly among local communities and more individuals enjoyed this great Maryland tradition.

Through a historic collaboration in 2008, Maryland, Virginia and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (PRFC) took strong coordinated action to reduce harvest pressure on female crabs by 34 percent.  At that time, scientists from all three jurisdictions deemed conservation measures necessary as blue crabs suffered near historic lows in spawning stock.

“The Bay’s blue crab population is healthy and now is showing signs of resiliency, thanks to our stock rebuilding efforts with our Maryland partners,” said Steven G. Bowman, Commissioner of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

“We cannot control the weather. It was a harsh winter and crab mortality was higher than normal. In fact, it was the worst we’ve seen since 1996. Thankfully, we acted when we did in 2008 to begin rebuilding the crab population, or the crab census results we see today would be grim indeed.”

“The coordinated management of blue crabs since 2008 clearly demonstrates the conservation gains that can be achieved when Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions act collectively toward a common vision – in this case a healthy blue crab population and sustainable fishery,” said Peyton Robertson, director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. “The Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team, recently established under the Chesapeake Bay Program, will build upon this collaboration to address other sustainable fisheries issues of shared interest among the Bay jurisdictions.”

The primary assessment of the Bay’s blue crab population is conducted annually by DNR and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).  Since 1990, the survey has employed crab dredges to sample blue crabs at 1,500 sites throughout the Chesapeake Bay from December through March. By sampling during winter when blue crabs are buried in the mud and stationary, scientists can develop, with good precision, estimates of the number of crabs present in the Bay.

With the help of stakeholders and members of the General Assembly, the O’Malley-Brown Administration achieved major victories in the 2011 legislature, passing bills that increased enforcement authority and penalties for certain egregious violations of striped bass, oyster and blue crab rules.

In September 2008, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service responded to Governor O’Malley’s request for disaster assistance funding for watermen impacted by the declining blue crab population.  With support from Senator Barbara Mikulski and Maryland’s Congressional Delegation, DNR received $15 million that extends into 2012 to assist management efforts and mitigate the impacts from the blue crab fishery disaster.  In Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010, Governor O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly also directed $6 million in capital funding toward these efforts.

More information is available here.

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